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FYI Number 59: April 22, 2005

Top Science and Math Teachers Testify Before Science Committee

"Probably the best use of federal funds" to improve science and math education is to sponsor "training for the teachers we already have in classrooms, and just as importantly, for pre-service teachers." This comment by Joyce Dodd, a sixth grade math teacher at the Bryson Middle School in South Carolina, reflected the consensus of the Presidential Awardees for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching who testified before the House Science Committee on April 14. Joining Dodd at the witness table were Cynthia Cliche, a first grade math teacher at Homer Pittard Campus School, TN; Cassandra Barnes, a third grade math teacher at Oregon Trail Elementary School, OR; Lonna Sanderson, a third grade science teacher at Will Davis Elementary School, TX; and Pita Martinez-McDonald, a fourth-grade science teacher at Cuba Elementary School, NM.

Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) opened the hearing by stating that "there is no issue within our jurisdiction that I care about more deeply than science and math education, especially at the pre-college level. And I suspect that every one of my colleagues...would say the same thing." He was seconded by Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), who wanted to know what it would take "to replicate your success and increase your numbers?" Gordon pointed out that the Administration's FY 2006 budget request "contemplates a significant reduction" in NSF's science education programs.

The witnesses, recipients of the 2004 presidential awards, agreed that children learn science and math best when encouraged to be "active learners," working with hands-on materials and discovering concepts for themselves. "Students must learn science by doing science," said Sanderson. However, the witnesses commented that many teachers at the elementary and middle school level are not comfortable teaching math and science, and lack training in how to instruct in a way that fosters active learning. Unless exposed to and trained in such teaching methods, Dodd said, "we all tend to teach the way we were taught." She stated that higher education institutions should take greater responsibility for ensuring that future teachers receive sufficient math and science content knowledge, and that the instruction in their college courses mirrors the "best practices" that they will be expected to use in their own classrooms.

"Professional development needs to be encouraged and funded for all teachers," Cliche remarked, but "it is often extremely difficult for teachers to obtain the funding to attend" professional development conference, seminars, and other opportunities. "If the federal government wants to take steps to improve math and science education for our children," Barnes added, it needs to "focus its energy and resources on providing high-quality professional development for our teachers."

The witnesses commented that in elementary and middle school classrooms, teachers often leave math, and particularly science, for the end of the day, resulting in insufficient time for hands-on activities and experimentation by students. They also pointed to a frequent lack of funding for supplies, "manipulatives," and technologies to support active learning in classrooms. "Give teachers the...supplies they need, give teachers and students access to technology, and give teachers the training they need" to learn how to effectively teach science, said Sanderson.

Effective professional development "takes time," Barnes pointed out, and involves trying out techniques in the classroom, assessing and reflecting on the results, and discussing them with colleagues. "Drive-by workshops" of one-day duration "are not the answer," said Martinez-McDonald.

The math teachers at the witness table praised the programs, seminars, materials and conferences sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (http://www.nctm.org/) for contributing to their success. NSF's efforts in curriculum development and teacher training, including the Rural Systemic Initiatives, were also commended, and Martinez-McDonald praised NASA for its on-line astronomy teaching resources.

Before the hearing, at a breakfast honoring the presidential awardees, Boehlert mentioned his cosponsorship of a bill that would forgive student loan interest for students pursuing careers in science, math and engineering, or in teaching these subjects. The "Math and Science Incentive Act of 2005" (H.R. 1547) would create a new program at the Education Department under which the government would pay interest on a student loan if the student then devoted five years to a profession in science, math, or engineering, including teaching those subjects. The bill "will enable scholarships to be focused on careers for which there is the greatest national need at any particular time," Boehlert said, "and it should increase the focus of the Department of Education on science, math and engineering." The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolfe (R-VA), with Reps. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) and Virgil Goode (R-VA) as additional cosponsors. It has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In the Senate, a companion bill (S. 765) has been introduced by Sen. John Warner (R-VA), with Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), George Allen (R-VA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) as cosponsors, and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Selected portions of Boehlert's April 14 speech to the presidential teaching awardees will be provided in FYI #60.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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